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Knicks fiction: The Zahir

Part 1 of 2.

New York Knicks Introduce New Signees Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

This is a work of fiction inspired by three things: the short stories of J.L Borges, the train scene from North by Northwest, and a question that I kept seeing raised last season — why was Tom Thibodeau, for whom winning is oxygen, continue to play Elfrid Payton, whose play did not appear to contribute to the cause? There had to be more going on than we realized, right? What might that be? Here is part one of my short story’s take on the question.

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“In Arabic, ‘zahir’ means visible, manifest, evident...beings or things which have the terrible power to be unforgettable, and whose image eventually drives people mad...the All-Merciful does not allow two things to be a [Zahir] at the same time, since a single one is capable of entrancing multitudes.”

— J.L. Borges, “The Zahir”

Last season the Zahir was a Kyrie Irving shammgod. In 2016 it was J.R. Smith at the Cavs’ championship parade, a shirtless, smiling guard made god among gobs agog, getting stoned by clouds of the faithful’s sweet sweet cheeb. The Zahir can appear anywhere in the world: a copy of Leigh Montville’s Tall Men, Short Shorts autographed by Frank DeFord in Hamed Haddadi’s Nanking penthouse; in 1964, it was a dead spot on the Boston parquet that only existed for three non-consecutive Tuesdays that year. The Zahir came into Tom Thibodeau’s life in 2007. He is not the man he was then, but he is still able to recall, and perhaps recount, what happened. He is still, albeit only partially, Thibs.

***

Every Friday night since she died, he goes jogging. North on Chile, east down Tacuarí until the fork left past Garay Plaza, looping back to Chile, the last ten minutes uphill, then two blocks to China Star to order the same dinner for two he did the night he came home to find her on the bathroom floor.

This Friday night, Thibs enters the kitchen, his gray t-shirt darkened by sweat that paints an asymmetry across his back: a single, broken wing. The fluorescent light comes in dim and dizzy through a ceiling fan that guillotines the glow; the walls soften and bob, as if underwater. He drops the takeout on the counter, opens the fridge. Looks inside. Looks there a while.

He grabs a ginger ale and a Bud Light Lime, shuts the fridge with his foot. Paper plates. Paper napkins folded into isosceles. Plastic forks. Paper cups and ice — always the ice. Duck sauce. Soy sauce. He spoons Kung Pao chicken onto his plate and pepper steak onto hers, a little rice and three wontons each. There is dignity in eating alone — he used to enjoy it. But he can no longer stand the silence. Kung Pao has peanuts. Celery. The crunch deadens the silence.

When he’s done, Thibs tosses his fork and plate in the trash, leaves her untouched food in place, empties the cups into the sink. His chest grows heavy.

***

The next morning after practice, Immanuel Quickley challenges him to a free throw contest. Thibs knows Quickley’s only using that as an excuse to philosophize, but he enjoys the young man.

“It’s called a ‘perfect game,’ right?” Quickley says.

“It is,” Thibs agrees.

“And how many have there been? Ever? I know you know.”

“Twenty-three.”

Quickley turns and points, laughing, to Obi Toppin, who smiles and shakes his head. Thibs’ ability to recall virtually any number led Taj Gibson to nickname him “Rain Man.”

“And how old is baseball? Like 100?” Quickley swishes a free throw. “So that’s a perfect game every...what? Four years? How can you claim something is ‘perfect’ when it happens that often? That’s an insult.”

“I hear you.”

“That’s an insult!”

“I hear you.”

“An insult to any actual perfection to occur on the physical or spiritual planes.”

Thibs looks around the gym. Once Quick gets metaphysical, he’s hard to stop. Kevin Knox is across the gym, alone on the bench.

“Kev!” Thibs shouts. “You want in?” He waves a finger between himself and IQ. Knox shakes his head, returns to his bowl of Crunch Berries.

With the media after, Thibs congratulates Marc Berman on his daughter starting college. Ian Begley asks if he’ll continue to play his best players big minutes in blowouts.

“That’s just a read on the game, what’s going on,” Thibs says. “The way people can make up ground with 3s, there’s no lead that’s safe.”

Thus begins a philosophical debate between the three about the perfect defense, one not only competitively hermetic but morally valid. Berman mentioned an early Phil Jackson system from his days coaching the CBA’s Albany Patroons. After a night of weed-infused spaghetti bolognese, Jackson had an epiphany: the perfect defense was really a single offensive principle — score first. In any game, scoring the first basket was the best predictor of winning, he claimed; no lead can ever truly be lost in a game that’s timed, because the team down two has to cut two to one, then one to a half, a half to a quarter, a quarter to an eighth, a sixteenth, and so on and so forth, an endless series of deficits that can never make it back to zero. Everything else that happens in games — the runs, the lead changes, the game-winners — is a pseudo-reality, a simulation meant to distract people from the capital-T Truth. The weed kicked in and Jackson went off on some jibber-jabber about Heraclitus, Rick Barry’s free throws and “the sound of infinity.”

Begley calls Jackson “delusional” for presuming to think he, a mortal, can state any assurances regarding the nature of time, which dwarfs, predates and will long outlast the cosmos. The three men continue their conversation downtown at The Top Cat, the bar owned and operated by one-time Knick Tony Campbell. On their fifth round of gimlets, Berman asks Thibs if he was serious when he said he wanted to see Derrick Rose and Kemba Walker play together.

“A gentleman never asks, Ian,” Thibodeau says. “A lady never tells.”

Confused, Berman looks to Begley, then back to Thibs. “He didn’t ask you, Tom. I did.”

One might say that Thibs takes so little interest in differences outside of basketball that he mistook Berman for Begley. That, however, would be to impute confusion to his intelligence. It is more correct to say that where most of us see coins, Thibs see spheres, and that in Top Cat that night, in the eyes of Thibodeau, Berman and Begley (the joker and the straight man, boomer and millennial, lawful chaos and neutral order) were a single person.

The reporters leave shortly after, thinking Thibs drunk. Neither notices the goosebumps on his arms; it was reasonable for them to assume he’d slurred his speech because of the booze. It’s 75 degrees; there’s no reason for anyone to suspect the truth, which is that his body is freezing because his mind’s taking him back to a January night in 2007 and a high school game at Madison Square Garden. The night he first met her. And first saw the Zahir.

***

Thibs, then an assistant with Jeff Van Gundy’s Houston Rockets, had taken the red eye from Sacramento to LaGuardia, barely making the flight after an overtime win. Simeon Career Academy, a powerhouse from Chicago, was at the Garden to face Rice, the legendary Harlem high school that would close four years later. Thibs was there to scout Derrick Rose, one of the top players in the country, as well as Kemba Walker, who’d steadily built a rep of his own.

His connections at MSG from his days as a Knicks assistant meant he could still get decent seats. This time he sat in section 111, the first row behind the people behind the basket. Midway through the first quarter, an usher told him there’d been a mistake, and would Thibodeau please follow him to the correct seat. The usher got closer and closer to the court, not stopping until he’d reached two floor seats in a row by themselves. In one a tall woman sat, talking with an arena worker. She waved Thibs over, smiled at him and motioned for him to sit. As he did she handed him a menu.

“What are you gonna have?” she asked.

“You recommend anything?”

“The brook trout. A little trouty, but quite good.”

“Sold.” Thibs nodded to the arena worker and watched them walk off. When he turned back the woman was still looking at him. “I know. I look vaguely familiar.”

“Yes.”

“You feel you’ve seen me somewhere before.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Funny how I have that affect on people. It’s something about my face.”

“It’s a nice face.”

“You think so?”

“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t.”

“Oh, you’re that type.”

“What type?”

“Honest.”

“Not really.”

“Good. Because honest women frighten me.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Somehow they seem to put me at a disadvantage.”

“Because you’re not honest with them?”

Thibs arched an eyebrow, playfully. “What I mean is, the moment I meet an attractive woman I have to start pretending I have no desire to make love to her.”

“What makes you think you have to conceal it?”

“She might find the idea objectionable.”

“Then again, she might not.”

The whistle blew. Simeon timeout. “Think how lucky I am to have been seated here.”

“Oh, luck had nothing to do with it.”

“Fate?”

She shook her head. “I tipped the usher $50 to move you here from your seat.”

“Is that a proposition?”

“I never make love on an empty stomach.”

Thibs forgets to breathe for a bit. “You’ve already eaten.”

She rests her cheek on her fist. “But you haven’t.”

He recalled — absurdly, he imagined incorrectly — hearing dialogue like theirs somewhere before. An old TV show? A movie? Cary Grant and Irene Dunne? Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly? A heavy drop of sweat grazed one of his temples and slowly rolled down his cheek. Simeon’s coach barked out a play call.

The physical universe stood still.

Her eyes remained trained on him, but she was otherwise immobile. The referee’s hands eternalized a traveling violation. Thibs began to speak, a syllable, a phoneme, a muted cry. He realized he was paralyzed. Not a sound reached him in an arena filled with thousands of people.

He thought: I’m dead. I’m in Hell. I’m in Jersey.

He thought: I’ve gone mad.

He thought: Time has come to a halt.

Then he reflected that if this were true, his thoughts, too, would have come to a halt. He repeated in his mind the heights, weights and colleges of the entire 1991-92 Knicks roster. He recalled the day he and Steve Clifford, freezing and bleeding in the South Jersey woods, tracked a Russian hitman for hours, never to find him. He slept. Upon waking, the sweat still clung to his cheek; the traveling violation stayed trapped in the amber of whatever miracle had occurred; her eyes remained still but alive. Another “day” like this passed before Thibs understood.

Time had stopped. Why?